Pushing the Limits
Desire & Imagination in the Buddhist Path
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Alternate format: [book icon] A printed copy is included in the book Purity of Heart.

All phenomena, the Buddha once said, are rooted in desire. Everything we think, say, or do — every experience — comes from desire. Even we come from desire. We were reborn into this life because of our desire to be. Consciously or not, our desires keep redefining our sense of who we are. Desire is how we take our place in the causal matrix of space and time. The only thing not rooted in desire is nirvana, for it's the end of all phenomena and lies even beyond the Buddha's use of the word "all." But the path that takes you to nirvana is rooted in desire — in skillful desires. The path to liberation pushes the limits of skillful desires to see how far they can go.

The notion of a skillful desire may sound strange, but a mature mind intuitively pursues the desires it sees as skillful and drops those it perceives as not. Basic in everyone is the desire for happiness. Every other desire is a strategy for attaining that happiness. You want an iPod, a sexual partner, or an experience of inner peace because you think it will make you happy. Because these secondary desires are strategies, they follow a pattern. They spring from an inchoate feeling of lack and limitation; they employ your powers of perception to identify the cause of the limitation; and they use your powers of creative imagination to conceive a solution to it.

But despite their common pattern, desires are not monolithic. Each offers a different perception of what's lacking in life, together with a different picture of what the solution should be. A desire for a sandwich comes from a perception of physical hunger and proposes to solve it with a Swiss-on-rye. A desire to climb a mountain focuses on a different set of hungers — for accomplishment, exhilaration, self-mastery — and appeals to a different image of satisfaction. Whatever the desire, if the solution actually leads to happiness, the desire is skillful. If it doesn't, it's not. However, what seems to be a skillful desire may lead only to a false or transitory happiness not worth the effort entailed. So wisdom starts as a meta-desire: to learn how to recognize skillful and unskillful desires for what they actually are.

Unskillful desires can create suffering in a variety of ways. Sometimes they aim at the impossible: not to grow old or die. Sometimes they focus on possibilities that require distasteful means — such as lying or cheating to get ahead in your job. Or the goal, when you get it, may not really keep you happy. Even the summit of Everest can be a disappointment. Even when it's not, you can't stay there forever. When you leave, you're left with nothing but memories, which can shift and fade. If you did mean or hurtful things to get there, their memory can burn away any pleasure that memories of the summit might hold.

In addition, desires often pull in opposite directions. Your desire for sex, for instance, can get in the way of your desire for peace. In fact, conflict among desires is what alerts us to how painful desire can be. It's also what has taught each desire how to speak, to persuade, to argue or bully its way into power. And just because a desire is skillful doesn't mean it's more skillful at arguing its case than the unskillful ones, for those can often be the most intransigent, the most strident, the slickest in having their way. This means that wisdom has to learn how to strategize, too, to strengthen skillful desires so that less skillful desires will listen to them. That way desires can be trained to work together toward greater happiness. This is how a mature and healthy mind works: conducting a dialogue not so much between reason and desire as between responsible desires and irresponsible ones.

But even in a mature mind, the dialogue often yields compromises that don't really go to the heart: snatches of sensual pleasure, glimpses of spiritual peace, nothing really satisfying and whole. Some people, growing impatient with compromise, turn a deaf ear to prudent desires and tune into demands for instant gratification — all the sex, power, and money they can grab. But when the rampage of gratification wears itself out, the damage can take lifetimes to set right. Other people try their best to accept the compromise among desires, trying to find a measure of peace in not reaching for what they see as impossible. But this peace, too, depends on a deaf inner ear, denying the underlying truth of all desires: that a life of endless limitations is intolerable.

Both sorts of people share a common assumption that true, unlimited happiness lies beyond reach. Their imaginations are so stunted that they can't even conceive of what a true, unlimited happiness in this lifetime would be.

What made the Buddha special was that he never lowered his expectations. He imagined the ultimate happiness — one so free from limit and lack that it would leave no need for further desire — and then treasured his desire for that happiness as his highest priority. Bringing all his other desires into dialogue with it, he explored various strategies until finding one that actually attained that unlimited goal. This strategy became his most basic teaching: the four noble truths.

Most of us, when looking at the four noble truths, don't realize that they're all about desire. We're taught that the Buddha gave only one role to desire — as the cause of suffering. Because he says to abandon the cause of suffering, it sounds like he's denying any positive role to desire and its constructive companions: creativity, imagination, and hope. This perception, though, misses two important points. The first is that all four truths speak to the basic dynamic of desire on its own terms: perception of lack and limitation, the imagination of a solution, and a strategy for attaining it. The first truth teaches the basic lack and limitation in our lives — the clinging that constitutes suffering — while the second truth points to the types of desires that lead to clinging: desires for sensuality, becoming, and annihilation. The third truth expands our imagination to encompass the possibility that clinging can be totally overcome. The fourth truth, the path to the end of suffering, shows how to strategize so as to overcome clinging by abandoning its cause.

The second point that's often missed is that the noble truths give two roles to desire, depending on whether it's skillful or not. Unskillful desire is the cause of suffering; skillful desire forms part of the path to its cessation. Skillful desire undercuts unskillful desire, not by repressing it, but by producing greater and greater levels of satisfaction and well-being so that unskillful desire has no place to stand. This strategy of skillful desire is explicit in the path factor of right effort:

What is right effort? There is the case where a monk (here meaning any meditator) generates desire, endeavors, arouses persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful mental qualities that have not yet arisen... for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen... for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen... for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen. This is called right effort.

DN 22

As this formula shows, the crucial elements for replacing unskillful mental qualities with skillful ones are desire, persistence, and intent. Desire gives the initial impetus and focus for right effort, while persistence provides staying power. Intent is the most complex factor of the three. The Pali word here, citta, also means "mind," and in this context it means giving your whole mind to the work at hand: all your powers of sensitivity, intelligence, discernment, and ingenuity. You don't want your mind to be split on this issue; you want all of its powers working together on the same side.

These three qualities — desire, persistence, and intent — underlie every attempt to master a skill. So it's useful, in undertaking the path, to reflect on how you've used these qualities to master skills in the past. The Buddha made this point in his many similes comparing the person on the path to a master craftsman — a musician, carpenter, surgeon, acrobat, cook. As with any skill, there are many steps to developing the path, but four stand out.

The first is to use your ingenuity to fight off the chorus of inner voices trying to dissuade you from making the effort to be skillful in the first place. These voices are like devious lawyers representing strongly entrenched interests: all your threatened unskillful desires. You have to be quick and alert in countering their arguments, for they can come from all sides, sounding honest and wise even though they're not. Here are some of the arguments these voices may propose, along with a few effective responses:

Trying to manipulate your desires like this is unnatural. Actually, you're already manipulating your desires all the time, when you choose one desire over another, so you might as well learn to do it skillfully. And there are plenty of people out there only too happy to manipulate your desires for you — think of all the advertisements clamoring for your attention — so it's better to put the manipulation in more trustworthy hands: your own.

Trying to change your desires is an attack on your very self. This argument works only if you give your sense of self — which is really just a grab bag of desires — more solidity than it deserves. You can turn the argument on its head by noting that since your "self" is a perpetually changing line-up of strategies for happiness, you might as well try changing it in a direction more likely to achieve true happiness.

To think of "skillful" and "unskillful" desires is dualistic and judgmental. You don't want non-dualistic mechanics working on your car, or non-dualistic surgeons operating on your brain. You want people who can tell what's skillful from what's not. If you really value your happiness, you'll demand the same discernment in the person most responsible for it: yourself.

It's too goal-oriented. Just accept things as they are in the present. Every desire tells you that things in the present are limited and lacking. You either accept the desire or accept the lack. To accept both at once is to deny that either has any real truth. To try to dwell peacefully in the tension between the two — in a "path of no craving" to be rid of either — is what the Buddha called limited equanimity, and what one Thai forest master called the equanimity of a cow.

It's a futile attempt to resist such a divine and mysterious power. Desire seems overwhelming and mysterious simply because we don't know our minds. And where would we be if we kept slapping the term "divine" or "cosmic" on forces we didn't understand?

Arguing with unskillful desires is too much work. Consider the alternative: an endless wandering from one set of limitations to another, continually seeking happiness and yet finding it always slipping from your grasp, repeatedly taking a stance for one desire one moment and shifting to another desire the next. Right effort at least gives you one steady place to stand. It's not adding a more demanding desire to the chaotic mix; it's offering a way to sort out the mess. And the Buddha's path holds open the hope of an unlimited happiness, preceded by increasingly refined and reliable levels of happiness all along the path. In short, his alternative is actually the one that's more enjoyable and involves less work.

Once you've silenced these voices, the next step is to take responsibility for your actions and their consequences. This requires being willing to learn from your mistakes. Several years ago, a sociologist studied students in a neurosurgery program to see what qualities separated those who succeeded from those who failed. He found ultimately that two questions in his interviews pointed to the crucial difference. He would ask the students, "Do you ever make mistakes? If so, what is the worst mistake you've ever made?" Those who failed the program would inevitably answer that they rarely made mistakes or else would blame their mistakes on factors beyond their control. Those who succeeded in the program not only admitted to many mistakes but also volunteered information on what they would do not to repeat those mistakes in the future.

The Buddha encouraged this same mature attitude in his first instructions to his son, Rahula. He told Rahula to focus on his intentions before acting, and on the results of his actions both while he was doing them and after they were done. If Rahula saw that his intentions would lead to harm for himself or others, he shouldn't act on them. If he saw that his thoughts, words, or deeds actually produced harm, he should stop them and resolve never to repeat them, without at the same time falling into remorse. If, on the other hand, he saw no harmful consequences from his actions, he should take joy in his progress on the path, and use that joy to nourish his continued practice.

Although the Buddha aimed these instructions at a seven-year-old child, the pattern they outline informs every level of the practice. The whole path to awakening consists of sticking to the desire always to do the most skillful thing; it develops as your sense of "skillful" gets more refined. If you act on an unskillful desire, take responsibility for the consequences, using them to educate that desire as to where it went wrong. Although desires can be remarkably stubborn, they share a common goal — happiness — and this can form the common ground for an effective dialogue: If a desire doesn't really produce happiness, it contradicts its reason for being.

The best way to make this point is to keep tracing the thread from the desire to its resulting actions, and from the actions to their consequences. If the desire aimed at a happiness that caused suffering to others, notice how their corresponding desire for happiness leads them to undermine the happiness you sought. If the desire aimed at a happiness based on things that can age, grow ill, die, or leave you, notice how that fact sets you up for a fall. Then notice how the distress that comes from acting on this sort of desire is universal. It's not just you. Everyone who has acted, is acting, or will act on that desire has suffered in the past, is suffering right now, and will suffer in the future. There's no way around it.

Reflecting this way helps to weaken the "why me?" tendency that aggravates suffering and makes you cling fiercely to the desire causing it. It also helps develop two important attitudes that strengthen skillful desires: a sense of dismay (samvega) over the universality of suffering, and an attitude of heedfulness (appamada) to avoid being duped by that particular type of desire again.

Unskillful desires don't really give way, though, until you can show that other, less troublesome desires actually can produce greater happiness. This is why the Buddha emphasizes learning how to appreciate the rewards of a virtuous, generous life: the joy in fostering the happiness of others, the solid dignity and self-worth in doing the hard but the right thing. It's also why his path centers on states of blissful, refreshing concentration. Accessing this refreshment in your meditation gives you immediate, visceral proof that the Buddha was no killjoy. The desires he recommends really do produce a happiness that can give you the strength to keep on choosing the skillful path.

That's the next step: patiently and persistently sticking with the desire to do the skillful thing in all situations. This isn't a matter of sheer effort. As any good sports coach will tell you, hours of practice don't necessarily guarantee results. You have to combine your persistence with intent: sensitivity, discernment, ingenuity. Keep an eye out for how to do things more efficiently. Try to see patterns in what you do. At the same time, introduce play and variety into your practice so that the plateaus don't get boring, and the downs don't get you down.

The Buddha makes similar points in his meditation instructions. Once you've mastered a state of concentration, see where it still contains elements of stress. Then look for patterns to that stress: what are you doing to cause it? Find ways to gladden the mind when it's down, to liberate it from its confinements, to steady it when it gets restless. In this way, as you learn to enjoy rising to the challenges of meditation, you also gain familiarity with subtle patterns of cause and effect in the mind.

The fourth step, once you've mastered those patterns, is to push their limits. Again, this isn't simply a matter of increased effort. It's more a rekindling of your imagination to explore the unexpected side-alleys of cause and effect. A famous cellist once said that his most exhilarating concert was one in which he broke a string on his cello and decided to finish the piece he was playing on the remaining strings, refingering it on the spot. The most obvious strings in meditation are the specific techniques for fostering stillness and insight, but the more interesting ones are the assumptions that underlie the quest for skill: lack, strategy, dialogue, your sense of self. Can you learn to do without them? There comes a point in your meditation when the only way for greater happiness is to begin questioning these assumptions. And this leads to some intriguing paradoxes: If desire springs from a sense of lack or limitation, what happens to desire when it produces a happiness with no lack or limitation at all? What's it like not to need desire? What would happen to your inner dialogue, your sense of self? And if desire is how you take your place in space and time, what happens to space and time when desire is absent?

The Buddha encouraged these queries by describing the awakened person as so undefined and unlimited that he or she couldn't be located in the present life or be described after this life as existing, not existing, neither, or both. This may sound like an abstract and unreachable goal, but the Buddha demonstrated its human face in the example of his person. Having pushed past the limits of cause and effect, he was still able to function admirably within them, in this life, happy in even the most difficult circumstances, compassionately teaching people of every sort. And there's his testimony that not only monks and nuns, but also lay people — even children — had developed their skillful desires to the point where they gained a taste of awakening as well.

So imagine that. And listen to any desire that would take you in that direction, for that's your path to true happiness.